Last But First
Surnames matter when you’re an ethnic minority
The hallmark of my thirteenth year on earth was Sisqo’s Thong Song. Not for its lowbrow lyricism or its objectification of women — it was much more complex than that: the word thong rhymes with Kwong, which is my surname. Pre-pubescent teens may not know how to calculate Pi, but they sure know a couple of hilarious rhyming words when they hear them.
Their teasing was not malicious. They didn’t mock my father or draw cartoon slits for eyes as they placed these two words side by side. They just thought it was funny. And as happens when you’re embarrassed and grateful and excluded — as happens when you’re an ethnic minority — I laughed with them. We all did; my brother and sister, too. Because it wasn’t just kids and it wasn’t just Sisqo. Teachers also gleefully showboated their poetic genius off the back of our surname. Some even posited that our surname was ‘zany’. Maybe not as zany as a trusted adult claiming that a non-white student’s name is weird in front of thirty malleable white kids who yearn to be popular, though.
Surnames matter when you’re an ethnic minority. Not just because of inane R&B songs from the early noughties, but because they come first, not last. They are another barrier you cannot sneak past, no matter how stealthy or ‘almost’ you are. I’m half-white and in Britain I still can’t slip past the omnipresent guard. It’s not about wanting a different surname, it’s about wanting a less exhausting life. This isn’t particularly defiant or empowered, but sometimes being defiant is tiring. It is tiring trying to live a ‘normal’ life in which you are, as an active member of society, physically seen (slanted eyes, off-white skin) and heard (words that don’t sound like English).
With the face and mouth ruled out, the surname seems like the golden ticket. It’s going to do you a solid, take one for the team. But of course, it can’t. There is no real refuge if you intend to be part of mainstream society. If not on desk plaques or waiting room screens, your surname will still perch uncomfortably atop CVs, academic essays, and emails, ready to be misread and misunderstood.
Long before adolescent crushes, first boyfriends, and my now-husband, I made a decision: my surname would never change. No trading, no…